It’s Tet, Vietnamese New Year and The Charitable Truants have invaded. Inoffensively. The bus rolled in to the anonymous hotel in the nondescript town somewhere between Hanoi and Trang An. We met the local team and set to getting their battered mountain bikes just so. Then talk, beer and challenging food. It was OK and the first of many just like it: chicken and sweetcorn soup and bits and overcooked bobs and then at the end rice and watery vegetable soup and fruit. Always the rice last. You get used to it.
Dawn and into the hinterland, where the bikes awaited our backsides. Off we went between the rice paddies, utterly beautiful stretching away for miles to the limestone karsts of Ninh Binh in the distance with a huge pagoda as our guiding mark. A lady in bright blue under her iconic conical hat sewing seed, or maybe fertilizer, alone in a vast sea of green rectangles; farmers bent double hoeing their field with their ancestors’ same square bladed hacking tool; tethered water buffalo grazing the verges; a mud tractor roaring through a paddy with its steam boat paddle-type wheels flailing the bed for the lady in the hat presumably; a sudden 1000 strong gaggle of white ducks flocking into the water on either side of the road, never actually getting in our way – like the traffic of a million scooters they flowed like safely around us like water. The noisiest water you ever heard. All a rural idyll really, except for the omnipresent plastic trash and smouldering rubbish dumps. It felt like a Cornish weather forecast: beautiful overall, but utterly foul in places. Utterly foul.
Rant over, but not the pedalling. 72k to do on the day, under cool leaden skies down dirt tracks you can double up if you are comparing our effort to your road-bike outing on the South Downs. We reached our first gathering point after a gentle warm up on ancient concrete, before tackling a long stretch of potholes then decent dirt and onto real road and then the concrete jolts again, before blissful tar took us to that distant giant pagoda for our next regathering. So many religions in one place, and none of them followed much, bar a near universal ancestor worship, it being that time of year.
As the 41 of us, old, overweight and jet-lagged, ride these biennial efforts, the only cycling most of us do, our ragged peleton stretches out, the faster ones forming a draft behind the lead guide and hammering out the miles, while the slowest go at half their pace in pairs and groups for a bit then alone with their knees and crotches aflame as they grind into the headwinds in solitary heroism, crashing gears and eventually begging pills and bindings from Lee, our Geordie paramedic. The rear guard do avoid the wrong turnings though. The lead guide is not that local and often makes the wrong decision, leaving the fast boys to turn round way down the wrong road and rejoin just as our 20-stoners reach the same junction for the first time. Serves them right say the Heavy Cavalry.
And then after our break under the giant pagoda by a holy lake dotted with smaller others we took off into a dramatic land of huge limestone karsts wriggling alongside the rivers between them, the scenery truly spectacular now as we knocked off the miles to lunch in Trang An, a land of guesthouses and backpacking youth from all nations. We had the same meal again, and a few beers, cokes and lots of water and electrolytes and enjoyed lolling about as long as we could before setting off to our hotel along roads that now ceased to be such, becoming tracks and mudholes jarring our wrists and twisting us this way and that weaving along long loops of muddy path between the paddies in the shadow of cave-ridden cliffs. We negotiated them with only a few fallers and none of them bad (a rice paddy is good to fall into); and loved the beauty of the views as much as we loathed the jarring of ever-bruising backsides. 1st 72k done.
Next morning a Tai Chi warm up clears the hangover and it’s off down the main road, our red line astern dodging the Tet traffic over a vast roundabout and a set of the traffic lights the locals regard as entirely voluntary, and heading off along the River Vac down a track made of granite shards set into mud it seemed to me. That was 5 miles of hell before things got easier and then delightful as brand new, empty, concrete highway had us hurtling along, only to end dramatically some 6 feet over the river. The Tour de France would have gone in like lemmings, but after 7 of these developing world rides we know good roads end sharply, so we slewed to a halt inches from the cartoonist’s scrabbling arc and tacked back to learn the right way from the laughing locals.
They sent us out between the fields once more, the road-surface varying by the yard (do you get how surfaces REALLY matter?) until our first brief water stop next to the smiling lady selling her just slaughtered family fattened pig piece by piece by the roadside. And then on again, for it’s 90ks we do today, starting through a town called Phat Diem to meet our first full-on urban traffic and high-street pedestrian chaos. We loved it: hilarious, cacophonous, confrontational, but without any anger at all. One becomes a water molecule in the two-way stream, flowing, pooling, weaving in the current, suddenly past the ‘The Quiet American’ cathedral, then on, the only ones not hooting warnings every yard. Wonderfully, unexpectedly, we brought smiles and hellos from all we passed, which we returned with delight to cause even more amusement. It was a joy, but complicated riding, weaving into the traffic and out at very slow speed, a 100 Viet scooter hooters blaring in notification of their approach from all directions. Don’t try it at home. Big Frank tumbled while narrowly avoiding a scooter and manfully rode on with a badly battered wrist, others narrowly missed crushing the roadside wares as we wobbled through the melee. We gathered laughing and energised in the town square to sit down on tiny chairs for a local condensed milk coffee. We watched the fisherman work through the rugby pitch-sized pond in the square using nets in which he swam-walked to grab a catfish by its tail and hurl it out onto the road for his mate to gather in, all while more agile and frankly tastier looking fish jumped over the closing net and struggling bloke. Fishing the hard way.
After coffee (and a doze) we went back into the chaos of town and headed for the ferry, the clicks another hilarious delight of a ride through all the life and fun and chaos of a Tet-celebrating Viet village, distracting entirely from the hard work that legs and bums and wrists were still doing k after k. Then a welcome breather while we caught a surely soon-to-sink ferry across a tiny river and then off again, but only for a bit until we did the same again, river deltas being a bit like that. Then it was off amongst the fields and through the villages and the sudden clusters of huge gabled Catholic churches, sometimes 3 to a village, like a weird sort of Easter Island heads event must have occurred amongst the French missionaries it seemed to me, before dropping in to a roadside restaurant for a picnic lunch of baguettes and burgers made by our local bike mechanics and guides for a bit of extra cash. We welcomed knowing what it was we were eating for a change, though the vegans and veggies were not so charitable about their fried rice and onions.
The thing about these rides is that you inevitably sometimes end up entirely on your own. You find you can’t quite keep up with the group or person you are with and the next Truant or group of them is far behind, so suddenly you round a bend and you are all alone in an utterly different land. You slow or speed up to try and reconnect, but others are doing the same so you stay on your own, eventually enjoying that, revelling in the peace, or just working through the cacophony or smell before you then get to wondering if you are still on the right road. There is no map and when you get to a junction, there is quite often no guide there just then. He was, but he got a radio call to get to the front, or mend a puncture and roared off on his bike leaving you to guess. You do, and get it right most often, but the doubts grow and grow so you stop and meander back, until either you see a red shirt approaching and relax, or maybe catch a glimpse of one rounding a bend far ahead and pursue it with new vigour hoping it really was Truant red and not just Viet red, or you just stop and ponder a life in the paddies until a motorcycle roars up and barks orders at you and you recommence your grind forwards or back depending. You can tell its real by the relief you feel when one of the 3 happens, as to be fair it always has this last decade. Eventually.
It’s not a usual thing to be utterly lost in our modern world, but when you don’t know where you are meant to be going and you don’t know from whence you came, your phone is useless and your great big ego disappears very fast.
It happened a lot that afternoon, the getting lost and finding ourselves, until a bunch of us lost ones ended up invited to became part of a Tet karaoke party when we paused to regather and wait to learn if we were on the right path. We had to hand back our beers as the others caught up or looped back to us, so we could make the long evening ride into Hai Phong, Vietnam’s 3rd largest city and the dodgiest hotel of our tour. That was 90ks in a day, about half of it on rubbish roads or tracks: a mighty achievement for all and a superhuman one for the quite a few of us who weigh twice what we should. We didn’t deserve the dodgiest dinner of the tour, and envied Mark and Helen for sneaking in a pizza while the rest of us survived the pork knuckle and slidy fish bits, and the finding of the crab in the ‘crap broth’.
The next day, our last on the road thanks be, saw us head out through the city, almost devoid of traffic now the Tet revellers had all reached home; through spectacular new developments of beautiful housing, entirely unoccupied as yet and utterly different to all that surrounded them, like finding Holland Park amidst a council estate. Which come to think about it is where you find it I thought, as we pedalled on up and over a huge fly-over with a climb that was as steep and long as most of us can do and then down as the knees unlock and sharp right onto dire canal-side path for far too long before our mostly liquifying innards were allowed a desperately needed break at the public convenience next to a random fly-tip. The smells of both moved us on swiftly, out over our worst roads yet, some single file, some through toxic smoke from burning rubbish dumps and then into the villages and hamlets of joy and laughter at the giant foreigners sailing by and a then into a sort of Viet suburban poshness, with the roads getting easier and the landscape cleaner as we headed out into the country to catch a proper ferry across the vast Da Bach River before setting out across the much drier farming country towards Halong Bay on the toughest stretch of all: a long hard ride into headwinds all the way, seemingly all uphill. We were quiet and desperately seeking benches when we gathered to rest up a bit and repair Adam, who had tumbled while trying inexplicably to avoid Shacky’s fallen-off hooter and wait for poor Mike who had needed an emergency pitstop and found the rest of us gone when he finished his work some time later. A desperate WhatsApp message and a cycle all the way back to the ferry saved him from a life of wandering the Viet byways and made us complete again.
Our last leg saw us cycling the remaining ks slowly and together under still lowering skies into the La Paz Resort on Halong Bay where we posed for photos and to relish a job and more than 220ks of hard riding well done, and more than ¾ of a million Sterling raised for our causes. Thanks to all of you.